“Nothing ever really disappears from the Internet” – or does it?

How many times have you tried looking for that article you wanted to re-read only to find yourselves losing it an hour or two later, unsure as to whether you’ve ever read that article in the first place or whether that has been just a figment of your imagination?

I developed OCD some time in my teen years (which probably isn’t very atypical). One aspect of my OCD is really banal (“have I switched off the oven…?!”; “did I lock the front door…?!”) and easy to manage with the help of a camera-phone. Another aspect of my OCD is compulsive curiosity with a hint of FOMO (“what if that one article I miss is the one that would change my life forever…?!”). With the compulsion to *know* came the compulsion to *remember*, which is where the OCD can sometimes get a bit more… problematic. I don’t just want to read everything – I want to remember everything I read (and where I read it!) too.

When I was a kid, my OCD was mostly relegated to print media and TV. Those of us old enough to remember those “analogue days” can relate to how slow and challenging chasing a stubborn forgotten factoid was (“that redhead actress in one of these awful Jurassic Park sequels… OMG, I can see her face on the poster in my head, I just can’t see the poster close enough to read her name… she was in that action movie with that other blonde actress… what is her ****ing name?!” – that sort of thing).

nothing ever disappears from the internet

Then came the Web, followed by smartphones.

Nowadays, with smartphones and Google, finding information online is so easy and immediate that many of us have forgotten how difficult it was a mere 20-something years ago. Moreover, more and more people have simply never experienced this kind of existence at all.

We get more content pushed our way than we could possibly consume: Chrome Discover recommendations; every single article in your social media feeds; all the newsletters you receive and promise yourself to start reading one day (spoiler alert: you won’t; same goes for that copy of Karl Marx’s “Capital” on your bookshelf); all the articles published daily by your go-to news source; etc. Most people read whatever they choose to read, close the tab, and move on. Some remember what they’ve read very well, some vaguely, and over time we forget most of it (OK, so it probably is retained on some level [like these very interesting articles claim,], gradually building up our selves much like tiny corals build up a huge coral reef, but hardly anyone can recall titles and topics of the articles they read days, let alone years prior). 

A handful of the articles we read will resonate with us really strongly over time. Some of us (not very many, I’m assuming) will Evernote or OneNote them as their personal, local-copy notes; some will bookmark them; and some will just assume they will be able to find these articles online with ease. My question to you is this: how many times have you tried looking for that article you wanted to re-read only to find yourselves losing it an hour or two later, unsure as to whether you’ve ever read that article in the first place or whether that has been just a figment of your imagination? (if your answer is “never”, you can probably skip the rest of this post). It happened to me so many, many times that I started worrying that perhaps something *is* wrong with my head. 

And Web pages are not even the whole story. Social media content is even more “locked” within the respective apps. Most (if not all) of them can technically be accessed via the Web and thus archived, but this rarely works in practice. It works for LinkedIn, because LI was developed as browser-first application, and it’s generally built around posts and articles, which lend themselves to browser viewing and saving. Facebook was technically developed as browser-first, but good luck saving or clipping anything. FB is still better than Instagram, because with FB we can still save some of the images, whereas with Instagram that option is practically a non-starter. Insta wants us to save our favourites within the app, thus keeping it fully under its (i.e. Meta’s) control. That means that favourited images can at any one time be removed by the posters, or by Instagram admins, without us ever knowing. I don’t know how things work with Snap, TikTok, and other social media apps, because I don’t use them, but I suspect that the general principle is similar: content isn’t easily “saveable” outside the app.

Then there are ebooks, which are never fully offline the way paper books are. The Atlantic article highlights this with a hilarious example of the word “kindle” being replaced with “Nook” in a Nook e-reader edition of… War and Peace.

Then came Iza Kaminska’s 2017 FT article “The digital rot that threatens our collective memory” and I realised that maybe nothing’s wrong with my head, and that maybe it’s not just me. While Iza’s article triggered me, its follow-up in The Atlantic nearly four years later (“The Internet is rotting”) super-triggered me. The part “We found that 50 percent of the links embedded in Court opinions since 1996, when the first hyperlink was used, no longer worked. And 75 percent of the links in the Harvard Law Review no longer worked” felt like a long-overdue vindication of my memory (and sanity). It really wasn’t me – it was the Internet.

It really boggles the mind: in just 2 – 3 decades the Web has replaced libraries and physical archives as humankind’s primary source of reference information (and arguably fiction as well, though paper books are still holding reasonably strong for now). The Internet is comprised of websites, and websites are comprised of posts and articles – all of which have a unique reference in the form of the URL. I can’t talk for other people, but I have always implicitly assumed that information lived pretty much indefinitely online. On the whole it may be the case (the reef so to speak), but that does not hold for specific pages (individual corals) anywhere near as much as I had assumed. There is, of course, the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, a brilliant concept and a somewhat unsung hero of the Web – but WM is far from solid (example: I found a dead link [ http://www.psychiatry.cam.ac.uk/blog/2013/07/18/bad-moves-how-decision-making-goes-wrong-and-the-ethics-of-smart-drugs/ ] in one of my blog posts [“Royal Institution: How to Change Your Mind”]. The missing resource was posted on one of the websites within the domain of Cambridge University, which indicates it is high-quality, valuable, meaningful content – and yet the Wayback Machine has not archived it. This is not a criticism of WM nor its parent the Internet Archive – what they do deserves the highest praise; it’s more about recognising the challenges and limitations it’s facing).

So, with my sanity vindicated, but my OCD and FOMO being as voracious as ever – where do we go from here?

There is the local copy / offline option with Evernote, OneNote, and similar Web clippers. I have been using Evernote for years now (this is not an endorsement), and, frankly, it’s far from perfect, particularly on a mobile (I said this was not an endorsement…) – but everything else I have come across has been even worse; and, frankly, there are surprisingly few players in that niche. Still, Evernote is the best I could find for all-in-one article clipping and saving – it’s either this or “save article as”, which is a bit too… 90’s. Then there is the old-fashioned direct e-mail newsletter approach, which, as proven by Substack, can still be very popular. I’m old enough to remember the life pre-cloud (or even pre-Web, albeit very faintly, and only because the Web arrived in Poland years after it arrived in some of the more developed Western countries) – C:\ drive, 1.44Mb floppy disks, and all that – and that, excuse the cheap pun, clouds my judgement: I embrace the cloud and I love the cloud, but I want to have a local, physical copy of my news archive. However, as Drew Justin rightly points out in his Wired article “As with any public good, the solution to this problem [the deterioration of the infrastructure for publicly available knowledge] should not be a multitude of private data silos, only searchable by their individual owners, but an archive that is organized coherently so that anyone can reliably find what they need”; me updating my personal archive in Evernote (at the cost of about 2hrs of admin per week) is a crutch, an external memory device for my brain. It does nothing for the global, pervasive link rot. Plus, Evernotes of this world don’t work with social media apps very well. There are dedicated content clippers / extractors for different social media apps, but they’re usually a bit cumbersome, and don’t really “liberate” the “locked” content in any meaningful way.

I see two ways of approaching this challenge:

  • Beefing up the Internet Archive, the International Internet Preservation Consortium, and similar institutions to enable duplication and storage of as wide a swath of Internet as possible, as frequently as possible. That would require massive financial outlays and overcoming some regulatory challenges (non-indexing requests, the right to be forgotten, GDPR and GDPR-like regulations worldwide). Content locked in-app would likely pose a legal challenge to duplicate and store if the app sees itself as the owner of all the content (even if it was generated by the users).
  • Accepting the link rot as inevitable and just letting go. It may sound counterintuitive, but humankind has lost countless historical records and works of art from the sixty or so centuries of the pre-Internet era and somehow managed to carry on anyway. I’m guessing that our ancestors may have seen this as inevitable – so perhaps we should too? 

I wonder… is this ultimately about our relationship with our past? Perhaps trying to preserve something indefinitely is unnatural, and we should focus on the current and the new rather than obsess over archiving the old? This certainly doesn’t agree with me, but perhaps I’m the one who’s wrong here…

https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2021/06/the-internet-is-a-collective-hallucination/619320/

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1 https://www.wired.co.uk/article/forget-idea-we-forget-anything 

2 https://www.wired.com/2009/09/forgottenmemories/ 

3 https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2021/06/the-internet-is-a-collective-hallucination/619320/